South-West rail network resilience

During the late evening of Tuesday 4 February 2014 a storm surge breached the sea wall carrying the railway at Dawlish (pop.16k). Eighty metres of track were left hanging, the adjacent road cut and several houses undermined. This had the effect of cutting off Cornwall (pop.570k), Plymouth (pop.262k), Torbay (pop.136k) and south-west Devon from the rest of the British railway network. Network Rail used shipping containers full of rubble to prevent further erosion of the breach in the sea wall.
Photo by Network Rail Photo by Network Rail
The line reopened as planned just two months later, on 4 April 2014. Eight years on, a new sea wall that is being built by Network Rail is proving to be effective at protecting the railway and town from rising sea levels and extreme weather. See a resilient railway for the next hundred years in this short video. And another two years later, it's a decade since.

On 8 February 2014 both lines to Taunton from the east were also closed by flooding whilst Whiteball Tunnel was already closed for maintenance, and the South-Western line to Exeter was closed by a landslip at Crewkerne. These left Exeter (pop.131k) and Taunton (pop.70k) totally isolated. The lines were all reopened by 10 March 2014.

The economy of the South-West cannot afford to be cut off for long periods of time again in future. In November 2012 Railfuture published Railway Flooding in Devon: Observations & Recommendations, which can be viewed or downloaded. These recommendations have yet to be actioned. At our Taunton conference in June 2013, the speaker John Dora of John Dora Consulting, a former Network Rail engineer, warned about environmental problems and referred particularly to the sea wall. A study published in the Journal of Transport Geography in December 2015 claimed that rail services to and from the South West of England could be disrupted for more than ten per cent of each year by 2040 and almost a third by 2100.

When the damage had been repaired, Railfuture called for:
  • A stakeholder conference to agree levels of service required in normal operation and during weather disruption or planned work
  • DfT to commission Network Rail to design and plan additional routes to achieve levels of service and promote economic growth
  • DfT to commit funding to implement a faster, continuously available rail link with the South-West within a decade.
The Peninsula Rail Task Force, a stakeholder group comprising local authorities, Local Enterprise Parnerships and transport campaigners, was set up to speak with one voice for the South-West. Network Rail set up a study in March 2014 with a remit to generate an appraisal of three alternative scenarios (see pages 7-8) in relation to the maintenance of connectivity for the South-West peninsula in the event that the Dawlish coastal route is not available due to severe weather or maintenance requirements. The West of Exeter Route Resilience Study report was published on 15 July 2014. Journey time improvements which are needed to promote economic growth were covered separately by the Network Rail Western Route Study published in August 2015.

The South West Peninsula Rail Task Force gave the Government its three-point plan for improving the rail lines in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall to support economic growth. It asked for:
  • Greater capacity and comfort (newer rolling stock)
  • Faster journey times and better connectivity (electrification)
  • Resilience and reliability (reinforcement of the existing route, a Dawlish Avoiding Line and reopening of the northern route via Okehampton).
The current main line via Dawlish has to remain as the main route because of the major population centres along its length. Breakwaters are needed around Dawlish as it is not the sea height that does the damage, but the wave action. Additionally the cliffs around Teignmouth (pop.15k) need significant rock bolting; we can see from the Harbury Tunnel landslip how long this can take to put right.

The Destination Okehampton group of local councils has been pressing for the northern route to provide resilience and promote economic growth in the area, and received support from transport ministers. A fully dual-track northern route with brand new Meldon Viaduct was quoted by the Network Rail study at £875m. However, another feasibility study being undertaken will look at whether a single line with long dynamic loops can perform as well, and also whether the existing Meldon viaduct is usable. Railfuture’s work in progress suggests that a partially single-track route could still give 4 train paths each way per hour, two for timetabled stopping services and two closely following for diversionary or other trains. There were reports of Network Rail personnel at Meldon Viaduct and also at Sourton, which is close to the junction of the A30 and A386, one possible location previously considered for a parkway station serving North Cornwall.

The first priority for the South-West must be to ensure that connectivity is maintained, both for Plymouth (pop.262k) and the large number of communities between Exeter (pop.131k) and Newton Abbot (pop.26k). Therefore Railfuture consider that the sequence in which enhancements are implemented should be:
  1. Strengthen the resilience of the existing coastal route (caveat: every £10million invested in enhancing the resilience of the coastal route may be taking £10million off the value of the benefits of any alternative route).
  2. Reinstate, in stages, the Okehampton line, for the following reasons:
    • We believe that a city the size of Plymouth, and of its strategic significance, should not depend on a single route to connect it to the national network. No other city in England of this size and importance is constrained in this way. Plymouth lost £600k per day when the Dawlish route was closed. Devon and Cornwall lost up to £1.2bn in total.
    • Apart from the risk of damage to the coastal section of the line, line possessions for routine maintenance and renewals, and indeed for the major task of electrification, require an alternative for Plymouth and for Cornwall. Reliance on buses and coaches for this task is no longer appropriate and, indeed, becomes increasingly difficult as the number of passengers using the railway increases.
    • The northern route could provide access to a wide area of West Devon and east Cornwall, which is today a very ‘transport poor’ area. The existing station at Okehampton (pop.7.5k) and the proposed one at Tavistock (pop.13k) could be supplemented by one or more stations (eg the proposed Okehampton Parkway, east of the town on the Dartmoor Line) to enable interchange from the A30, which would also take pressure of the stations and car parks at Exeter St. David’s and Tiverton Parkway.
    • Improved access would support economic growth in West Devon and east Cornwall. The economies of Exeter and Plymouth would also benefit.
    • The line would also bring external benefits in terms of reducing road congestion in both Exeter and Plymouth by providing rail access, which currently does not exist in these corridors.
    • an additional, more easily graded route for freight which would ease pressure on capacity of the line between Exeter and Newton Abbot.
    • This route would provide the resilience required for less than the cost of a Dawlish Avoiding Line, with only a marginal increase in journey time.
    • Although the route might be built incrementally, first by providing a regular Exeter-Okehampton service, commenced in November 2021, then reopening Bere Alston - Tavistock, the full diversionary route would ideally have been available before potentially disruptive work commences on the cliff section of the existing Plymouth main line between Dawlish and Teignmouth. In May 2023 recent and possible progress was considered in this video: "Which lines could return on the former West Devon railway network?" Note especially Devon County Council's Cabinet Member for Climate Change, Environment and Transport, Cllr. Andrea Davis, at 01:42-02:41. (The bid mentioned at 02:00-02:25 was successful, with a Strategic Outline Business Case submitted to the DfT in autumn 2022 and its approval given by Rail Minister Huw Merriman on 4th October 2023.)
  3. Reduce journey times: a London – Plymouth sub-three-hour headline journey time should be achievable with relatively few interventions, for example line speed improvements and electrification.
Our brief Campaigning for better rail services for the South West of England by Chris Austin OBE can be viewed or downloaded; our response to Network Rail's Western Route Study can be viewed or downloaded; or read Philip Shelton's article 'The case for Okehampton'. There are also articles by Gerard Duddridge in Railwatch July 2014 (pages 10-11) and December 2014 (pages 12-13) on the alternative routes.

A recent timeline:

STOP PRESS - February 2024: Ten years on from Dawlish storm… £165m investment is better protecting iconic coastal railway - watch video. Also, watch Saving the South West by Coast Cams.

November 2023: Dawlish sea wall withstands this month’s Storm Ciarán. Read the story and watch the video, with trains still running: Dawlish defiant!

October 2023: As rockfall shelter is completed, Network Rail looks to the next stages of south Devon railway resilience.

October 2023: the DfT's Network North, published on 4th October, at para.71 says "We will deliver rail improvements in the South West. ..... we will put aside funding to complete the South West Resilience Programme in full, delivering on our commitment to the South West to make the vital route between Exeter and Plymouth through Dawlish more resilient in the face of extreme weather."

July 2023: South West rail passengers to benefit from a more reliable railway as Network Rail gets set to start cliff resilience work. Resilience work on the cliffs between Dawlish and Holcombe to help protect the iconic coastal railway line for future generations is due to start this week.

July 2023: Transport Secretary marks completion of Dawlish sea wall, protecting South West railway for generations to come. Completion of the £82 million project was celebrated officially on 3rd July.

February 2023: Colonnade underpass reopens to the public - on Saturday 25th February - as new, bigger sea wall to protect railway and town of Dawlish reaches final stages.

November 2022: Network Rail community engagement events for south Devon residents about resilience plans for stretch of railway between Holcombe and Teignmouth.

November 2022: contract awarded for next phase of important coastal resilience works between Dawlish and Holcombe.

October 2022: latest progress in linking the two sections of the £80m new bigger sea wall to protect the railway

August 2022: new sea wall reaches key milestone.

April 2022: well on the way to completing section two of the new Dawlish sea wall.

April 2022: Government protects vital Dawlish coastal rail route with a further £32 million. Funding will create a more resilient railway. This latest round of funding, which follows on from three earlier phases of work and takes the total to more than £150 million, will prevent storm debris from reaching the railway.

February 2022: on the eighth anniversary of the 2014 storm, the new sea wall is playing a key role in protecting the town and railway.

January 2022: Overnight line closures for 8 weeks from Monday 24 January to Thursday 17 March for works associated with Parson's Tunnel rockfall shelter.

December 2021: not Dawlish but all part of a more resilient railway for the South West, Network Rail have submitted plans to reduce flood risk in Mid-Devon on the Exeter St. Davids-Taunton line south of the planned new Cullompton station.

September 2021: Dawlish sea wall first section completed.

August 2021: Dawlish sea wall second section nears completion following successful installation of concrete wall panels.

May 2021: Teignmouth District Council approves plans for extension of rockfall shelter.

March 2021: DfT commits £37m towards Network Rail plans to build 209m long extension to rockfall shelter north of Parsons Tunnel between Dawlish and Holcombe.

February 2021: Network Rail submits plans to Teignbridge District Council to extend an existing rockfall shelter over the railway line between Dawlish and Holcombe, north of Parsons Tunnel.

November 2020: work begins on second section of new Dawlish sea wall.

October 2020: Following public consultation, resilience plans for Parson's Tunnel-Teignmouth to be refined.

September 2020: Investing in resilient infrastructure - official opening of first section of Dawlish sea wall helping protect vital rail link to the South West.

August 2020: Teignbridge District Council approved Network Rail’s plans for remaining section of new sea wall at Dawlish, between Coastguards and Colonnade breakwaters.

July 2020: Network Rail marks completion of the new sea wall's first section. A review of works, one year on.

May 2020 Network Rail unveils plans for the new sea wall's second section, formally submitted in June.

January 2020 The Parson’s Tunnel to Teignmouth Resilience Project, part of the South West Rail Resilience Programme, is announced.

June-September 2019 Work begins! After a break for the summer holiday season works restart in September.

February 2019 Network Rail features Dawlish five years on, including three videos in Dawlish five years on and images of a new sea wall.

October 2018 Start of immediate repairs in November - when more bad weather struck.

November 2016 Government announces £10 million funding for rail resilience in the South West.

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